The Kingdom

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The Kingdom
Review (7.5/10)
(By Brendan Cullin)

When future film historians reflect upon the films produced in 2007, I have little doubt that they will call this the year that Hollywood dissected America's role in the Middle East. You cannot walk into a theatre this season without finding at least one film about the time bomb ticking in the aftermath of the Middle East conflict. Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah", Brian DePalma's "Redacted", Irwin Winkler's "Home of the Brave", Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart", Gavin Hood's "Rendition", Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs", James Strous' "Grace is Gone", Mike Nichols' "Charlie Wilson's War" and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" are just a few titles from the long list of films examining America, the Middle East and America in the wake of the conflict in the Middle East.

This weekend, actor-director Peter Berg ("Very Bad Things", "Friday Night Lights") jumped onto the bandwagon with the release of "The Kingdom", an action thriller about an American investigation of a terrorist bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Based upon the screenplay written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also wrote "Lions for Lambs"), "The Kingdom" follows the investigation of a terrorist bombing of an American housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Hindered by bureaucratic obstacles both at home and in "the Kingdom", FBI agents Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman) race against time as they work to uncover the plot and bring the terrorists to justice.

I went into "The Kingdom" with tepid expectations. I was not particularly looking forward to another film placing Americans on a pedestal and vilifying the "evil Arab terrorists". From the previews, it appeared to me that "The Kingdom" was yet another of those American propaganda films.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, notwithstanding a few "rah, rah, we're great" moments, "The Kingdom" is actually a decent film. Sure it is, at times, implausible and horribly violent, but it is also a film that captures the attention of its audience and evokes a powerful emotional response. I watched a Sunday matinee of this film in a packed theatre in downtown Toronto, and there were several scenes that actually drew audible gasps from the audience. It is, all at once, difficult to watch, but impossible to look away.

"The Kingdom" is not a film that will win any awards for its screenplay. At the beginning, the film does offer a very interesting, but brief, overview of the history of the relationship between America and Saudi Arabia. The main story literally explodes onto the screen, capturing the attention of the audience. The final lines of dialogue are powerful and thought-provoking. In between is a story that, at times, resembles an episode of CSI. In dissecting the film afterward, it seemed to me that a few characters jumped in and out of the story a bit too quickly, a few lines of dialogue had me rolling my eyes and a few scenarios shattered any myths that the film was realistic.

What saves this film from its mediocre screenplay is the outstanding effort by director Peter Berg and two award-worthy performances by Jason Bateman and Ashraf Barhom. Using the handheld documentary-style camera work that is becoming commonplace in contemporary action films, Berg manages to capture a sense of urgency and gritty realism. The audience is drawn into the scenes with the actors, and the effect of this filming style on them is powerful. There were times that I was sitting on the edge of my seat, holding my breath. One warning, though - this is not a film that I would recommend to those with weak hearts or stomachs. This is a violent film (it is about terrorism, after all), and the scenes of violence are prolonged and extremely realistic. Viewing the film through the eyes of its participants was, to say the least, disturbing. For me, the handheld camera work also evoked a few occasions of motion sickness. (The fact that my husband and I had spent the night prior sampling the menu at the Roof Lounge at the Park Hyatt did not help either, but that is another story.) If you are a person who does not enjoy handheld camera work, then I would stay away from this film.

"The Kingdom" is supported by an outstanding cast, some of whom deliver outstanding performances. Jamie Foxx delivers a solid performance. Jennifer Garner and Chris Cooper are slightly underused and add little to the film. But it is the performances by Jason Bateman that Ashraf Barhom that breathe life into this film. Bateman, who is quickly making a successful transition from the small screen to the big screen, offers a multi-dimensional performance, adding both wit and urgency to the film. Without spoiling the plot, I would simply say that there are a series of scenes in which his character is in danger, and the sheer sense of terror that he expresses is riveting. I expect that we will be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

It is the contribution by the relatively unknown actor Ashraf Barhom, however, that drives this film. Wearing a spectrum of emotions on his face, and he delivers a nuanced perfomance that will no doubt garner attention during awards season. With a few simple expressions, he manages to capture his character's frustrations, doubts and fears, never quite allowing the audience to see behind the wall that his character has constructed for himself, but allowing them to see just enough to keep them riveted to him. Watching him on screen, he reminded me a bit of Jean Reno ("The Professional", "Ronin") - I hope that, with the success of this performance, we will have the pleasure of watching him flex his acting muscles in other feature films.

"The Kingdom" is not a film that will appear on any of the year's "top ten" lists, but it is a film that is worth a trip to the theatre. It is not a film for everyone - it is brutally violent (although not gratuitously so) and extremely fast-paced. But, if you are prepared to toss back some Gravol and suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours, "The Kingdom" is a riveting, action-packed ride that will take you into the heart of a terrorist investigation. I guarantee that, in the end, you will never see the dangerous world in which we live quite the same way again.

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